The Religious Environment in Jefferson’s Area and Day

[The photo, by Jerry Newcombe, shows James Madison—who is mentioned in this article]

The Central Virginia Piedmont was strongly influenced by religious awakenings almost continuously between 1743 and 1806. Evangelicalism came to dominate the culture, even among Anglican churches. It strongly influenced the personal religious beliefs and activities of men such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson even helped establish a short-lived church with a pastor rooted in Anglican and Calvinist Evangelicalism. During the Second Great Awakening, Albemarle County had more camp meetings than any other single county in all of Virginia. It was a stronghold of revival enthusiasm. Prominent revival leaders introduced in this study who resided in the area included Deveraux Jarratt, Samuel Stanhope Smith, John Leland, James Waddell (and the lesser known but very influential Anthony Gavin, Charles Clay, John Todd, Henry Fry, Elijah Craig, John Waller, George Eve, Philip Gatch, and Drury Lacy). These were strengthened by visits from nationally-prominent Evangelicals such as William Robinson, Samuel Davies, Samuel Harris, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, Harry Hosier (a black preacher), James O’Kelly and Lorenzo Dow (who also resided here briefly).

Religious leaders, even the prominent Evangelical revivalists, were heavily involved in politics and the new religious communities such as the Separate Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists joined with tolerant Anglican leaders to provide the strongest political force in the state in the cause for religious freedom. When writing the Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson had just written his orthodox Notes On Religion in 1776 and was starting a new Calvinistical Reformed church in Charlottesville. In fact, Charlottesville’s most significant champions for religious freedom – Jefferson, John Harvie, and Filippo Mazzei – were active members of this congregation. Furthermore, the Nicholas brothers were part of the Episcopal church. The very individuals that are often cited by many modern historians as leaders of a secular tradition were active members of their religious communities.

These Evangelicals also contributed to the rise of the Democratic-Republican Party in Virginia and in other states. Piedmont clergymen who worked closely with Jefferson and Madison in public affairs were Charles Clay, John Leland, Elijah Craig, Alexander Balmaine, Caleb Wallace, Aaron Bledsoe, George Eve, Bishop Madison, John Todd, William Irvin, Henry Fry, William Woods, James Waddell, Charles Wingfield, Tandy Key, John Goss, John Waller, Lorenzo Dow, Samuel Stanhope Smith, John Blair Smith, James Lemen, Jose’ Correa da Serra, John Holt Rice, David Rice, James Garrard, Elias Smith, Benjamin Ficklin, William Hammett, and Philip Gatch (Those in italics actually held public office themselves).[1]

When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison promoted religious freedom and spoke of a separation of church and state, it did not mean that they were trying to establish a completely secular society. While holding government office in Virginia and on the national level, these men consistently encouraged religion in public life and only refrained from doing so if it violated federalism (i.e. the right of states or of the people to decide on religious matters). By offering some refreshing original research into religious activities in the nation’s capitol during the Founding period, James Hutson showed that even Jefferson saw “the value of the faith in civil affairs;…[that it] had a role to play in a free society.”[2]

[1]   Thomas Buckley writes: “Virginians enjoyed freedom of belief and religious practice and the equality of all religious groups in the state. But civil authorities were expected to support a moral code reflective of evangelical values. In this way, while rejecting public tax support for the churches, Virginia still achieved a functional establishment of religion. Christianity became, [in the words of John Holt Rice in 1816]…the ‘religion of the nation.'” Buckley, “Establishing An Evangelical Culture,” 18.

[2]   Hutson, viii and xii. James H. Billington, The Librarian of Congress, welcomed Hutson’s “fresh interpretations” which show a surprising “enthusiasm with which Thomas Jefferson supported” the use of “federal facilities [for]…religion.” Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale commented that Hutson’s book shows “that, both in theory and especially in practice, the separation [of church and state] was, from the beginning, anything but ‘absolute.'”

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